"I don't swim in your toilet, so don't pee in my..."

-- originally posted 2008-02-17 05:09:16 - bumped

On January 12, 2008, I posted a piece titled Smarter Parts: Improving Efficient Energy Use and Demand? that touched upon an experimental program sponsored out of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The essence of the program was to create a home energy system that could respond to changing prices and peak demand loads by dialing back energy consumption. The system would be accessible via the internet so homeowners could make changes in absentia. An update to the story included another article indicating that in 2009, California regulators may have direct access to homeowner thermostats via radio-controlled devices in new or substantially modified houses and buildings to manage electricity shortages -- a plan cooked up by the California Energy Commission (CEC).

I opened a discussion thread for the piece in a few places, including several Delphi forums. In one thread,1 some energy and water efficiency ideas came up. One in particular spawned the short poll that you're about to see. Please read on, and take the poll; results will be published at the end of next week and included in another piece that I will cross-post in all areas where this appears.

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There are many areas for improvement with regard to how we go about our daily lives in terms of energy utilization and resource management. While simply providing for smarter planning and incorporating energy smart options on new buildings is one avenue, there are other types of concerns that we can and should face in order to reduce our overall ecological footprint. One area is the use (and re-use) of water -- a resource critical to all life, and one that is fast becoming scarce.2

In order to properly address any issue regarding scarce resources, we need to understand that there are usually several options available that can (and perhaps should) be used together to create an optimal approach. Here's a brief ad-hoc list of what types of considerations can be taken into account:

  1. How efficiently is the resource used?
  2. Can changes in the way the resource is used yield more efficient and effective results, conserving the rate of expenditure?
  3. Are alternate methods cost-effective, and how is cost-effective being calculated -- in an immediate, near-term or long-term capacity?
  4. What are the options for recycling the resource, and the relevant immediate / short term / long term implications of recycling?
  5. Is it possible to include cost-effective, efficient recycling methods in any new construction or re-construction that uses the resource?
  6. To what extent should recycling and efficiency be mandated, by whom, and how?

Water is a resource that is used in all aspects of life; it's not solely relegated to human life, where it spans virtually all aspects from basic hydration to cleaning and manufacturing. It is also a critical resource to the environment. Without water, the entirety of existence of life on this planet would cease.

Given that, and noting the growing scarcity of fresh water, the idea of separating out grey water and black water3 in all new home construction alone could be a tremendous asset. It would reduce overall consumption and the rate of consumption, particularly if other systems (not within the scope of this piece) are incorporated to help improve our efficient use and application of it.

This, then, would make sense. Separate the grey water from the black water and re-use the grey water. Of course, things aren't always that simple. Contaminants tend to get into the system one way or another, and accidents can't be avoided. According to the Foundation for Water Research,


Although toilet wastes are excluded from greywater, greywater still contains human faecal indicator bacteria in concentrations high enough to indicate a health risk from the potential presence of pathogenic micro organisms. Overseas authorities have confirmed this conclusion.

For safe re-use, either of the following must occur:

  • greywater must be treated to remove or destroy these micro organisms
  • human contact with greywater must be prevented.

Treatment of greywater to make it safe for human contact is expensive to achieve on an individual household basis. It is also difficult to ensure that treatment systems are maintained. Surveys in the USA, Australia and Brisbane have found that 60% to 80% of “onsite domestic wastewater treatment plants” are not maintained adequately. These treatment plants consistently do not produce an acceptable quality effluent.


Bugger. Nothing is ever simple.

There are several methods and approaches available4 with regard to dealing with contaminants in grey water, however; those are also not in the scope of this piece.

This piece is a lot more limited in scope.

Some of the factors that affect our habits for good or ill include our capacity for mature, responsible actions. People can be quite goofy at times (e.g., the Darwin Awards), and in many cases we are our own worst enemy.5 What I'm speaking of, and which I'd posted in response to the suggestion that future building projects include separate black and grey water systems, is this:


"...one item from my college years keeps coming to mind: what about all those mental midgets (or perhaps "socially challenged boors") who think it's funny to pee in the sink if someone is in the lavatory, or who pee in the shower when they are in it taking a shower?

I'm not sure how many women do the latter, and I'm sure very few women do the former, but I know of many guys -- particularly after a few beers -- who get goofy and think it's funny as hell to pee in the sink, and a few who readily admit to peeing in the shower.

Personally, I think both practices are disgusting and immature, lacking a sense of sanitary sensibility and major lack of maturity -- but that doesn't mean that a significant portion of people don't engage in the practice.

So, that would mean that some water systems which one would ~think~ should be or could be attached to grey water systems would have to be attached to black water systems, or that the base filtration and recycling of the grey water systems would have to include a method/manner of neutralizing urine.


The purposeful introduction of human waste into systems explicitly intended for grey water would put an additional burden of cost into the construction of such systems in order to ensure that a base level of clean water was achieved -- again, pushing us further up against the definition of "cost-effective" and efficient implementation of such systems. There are undoubtedly other system where human waste can be accidentally introduced -- bowel movements by children in a bath or shower, for example -- and the introduction of other human body fluids or tissues resulting from injury, menstrual activity, birth ("Honey, I think my water broke...!"), etc.

Such systems are in process already, and have a potential that can be immediately realized -- take, for example, the DEKA water purification system5 produced by Dean Kamen of Segway fame:


Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway scooter, and many other interesting things, introduced last Thursday a portable water purifier that he hopes will save millions of people around the world from shortages of fresh water. It is a 100 pound device which requires little maintenance and uses no chemicals or filters. It uses a specialized distillation and condensation process and produces 10 gallons of clean water an hour on 500 watts of electricity. The idea is that it goes hand in hand with a generator he's also developed, which uses a Stirling engine to produce electricity.


Water purification AND a companion energy generator. Neat-O.

But again I digress: the whole process, no matter how well thought-out, can always be derailed by the actions of any unthinking individuals or even completely by accident.

We've gone for many years using the seas as our toilet and primary waste receptacle. The effects have not been pretty, and only now -- only NOW -- are we finally beginning to hear enough people point out the obvious disasters that are resulting from our arrogant immaturity. Problems like the Pacific Gyre (a.k.a. The Garbage Patch) and ocean dead zones6 are a direct result of human stupidity (read: indifference) on a global scale. If, individually and within our communities, our cities and towns, our states, our counties and our nations, our actions and indifference can have such a massive impact on our environment and conversely rebound back upon us by creating a more challenging environment in which to attempt to survive, shouldn't we make it a priority to address the basic function of personal responsibility and accountability?7

To that end, I believe it behooves us to all incorporate a degree of greater awareness regarding the little things that can, taken collectively over time and in larger groups, add up and together constitute a significant improvement. "For want of a nail, the war was lost" etc.

So, I offer folks this poll and ask that they take it in all seriousness -- it's just a relatively silly example, but I think the results could be interesting. Please only vote once, and refrain from voting on more than one of the sites where this is cross-posted. Thank you.




  1. Forward-thinking energy-minded new construction: via this post in DelphiForums by SpringPam, which reads
    in Texas...

    I have never understood why the new subdivisions do not have homes with solar photovoltaic - to run the damned central airconditioning if nothing else - (when it is sunny is when you need the cooling power)

    or separate grey/black water systems. It is very affordable to put in at the time of developing the subdivision. Using grey water for irrigation of lawns and green areas would reduce radiant heat reflection from clear cutting brush or forests to build the boxes in the first place. Green plants also take out CO2 and create O2. It also uses less electricity and chemicals to treat water for non-drinking purposes.

    It's just logical.

    Two good points -- why not include a default solar photovoltaic array for new construction, and why not standardize a built-in water recycling and re-use methodology. The latter option raised a rather sticky question...

  2. More information about the growing scarcity of water resources can be found here:
    • Water Wars: Climate change may spark conflict
      [British Defense Minister] John Reid warns climate change may spark conflict between nations - and says British armed forces must be ready to tackle the violence
      Tuesday, 28 February 2006

    • Armed forces are put on standby to tackle threat of wars over water By Ben Russell, and Nigel Morris
      Tuesday, 28 February 2006
      Across the world, they are coming: the water wars. From Israel to India, from Turkey to Botswana, arguments are going on over disputed water supplies that may soon burst into open conflict.

      Yesterday, Britain's Defence Secretary, John Reid, pointed to the factor hastening the violent collision between a rising world population and a shrinking world water resource: global warming.

      In a grim first intervention in the climate-change debate, the Defence Secretary issued a bleak forecast that violence and political conflict would become more likely in the next 20 to 30 years as climate change turned land into desert, melted ice fields and poisoned water supplies...

    • The danger of water wars by Fred Pearce, NewStatesman Online, Published 28 November 2007
      Water consumption has tripled in the past 30 years and there's a growing danger that disputes over the most necessary of resources could erupt into violence

      Water is rapidly becoming one of the defining crises of the 21st century. Climate change is making its availability increasingly uncertain. And we are using ever more of the stuff.

      In the past three decades the human population has doubled but human use of water has tripled – largely because, tonne-for-tonne, modern ‘high-yielding’ crop varieties often need more water than the old crops...

    There's a lot of information out there. The above is but a small sample. Feel free to add more links in the Comments section.

  3. From Foundation for Water Research website, the definition of domestic wastewater can be segregated into two types of flows:
    • Blackwater – comprising water closet, bidet and bidette waste and having gross faecal contamination

    • Greywater (also referred to as sullage) – comprising all remaining household wastewater; for example, bath, laundry.
  4. From the Center for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE),

    There are four reasons why graywater may need to be treated:

    • To remove substances which may be harmful to plants;
    • To remove substances which may be harmful to health;
    • To remove substances which may be harmful to the wider environment;
    • To remove substances which may clog the graywater system.

    On-site treatment is an option that is not beyond our capacity to achieve; several sites exist that discuss grey water and delve into various systems available, and some companies sell prepackaged solutions.

  5. Perhaps one of the most famous sayings to have ever entered popular culture came from cartoonist Walt Kelly's character Pogo:

    "We has met the enemy, and he is us."


    Indeed, it is ever more appropriate that this now-immortal saying first appeared in poster-form on Earth Day in 1971. For history buffs, from the Wiki link,

    The quote, a rephrasing of a message sent in 1813 from U.S. Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry to Army General William Henry Harrison after The Battle of Lake Erie stating "We have met the enemy, and they are ours," first appeared in a lengthier form in A Word To The Fore, the foreword of the book The Pogo Papers. Since the strips reprinted in Papers included the first appearances of Mole and Simple J. Malarkey, beginning Kelly's attacks on McCarthyism, Kelly used the foreword to defend his actions:


    "Specializations and markings of individuals everywhere abound in such profusion that major idiosyncrasies can be properly ascribed to the mass. Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle.

    "There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.



    For an interesting reflection on the term, check this out, too.

  6. More on the DEKA Water Purification System:

    Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and the Safe Water Network today announced a program to develop small-scale, community-based solutions to bring safe water to neglected populations. The 12-month program will target several developing geographies, potentially including Bangladesh, China, India, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, where distributed water purification technology solutions are expected to improve community access to clean drinking water.

    Deloitte Global CEO William G. Parrett, along with Kurt Soderlund, chief operating officer of the Safe Water Network, announced the Deloitte member firm commitment to the clean water initiative and outlined the objectives of the program for the next 12 months. These include:

    • Empowering local communities to improve their living conditions through the deployment of distributed water purification technology.
    • Demonstrating alternative models to deploy water purification solutions, including micro-enterprise programs that establish local water entrepreneurs and social investment programs such as supplying water purification to local health clinics.
    • Developing plans that support broad scale deployment of solutions to materially improve the health and living conditions for the millions afflicted by water-borne illnesses.


    Nearly 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and 90 percent of deaths from water-related diseases in the developing world today occur in children less than five years. "In different ways, at different ages, access to adequate water and sanitation services influences everybody's health, education, life expectancy, well-being and social development," notes Mr. Parrett. "Water is fundamental to human life, community development, and Filling water bottles, Honduras field trial of the DEKA water purification technologylong-term sustainability."

    The Safe Water Network's initial priority is to demonstrate the applicability of an innovative Vapor Compression Distillation (VCD) water purification solution being developed by DEKA Research & Development, Safe Water Network board member Dean Kamen's firm. The technology is being optimized for developing world settings to ensure ease-of-use, low maintenance, versatility, portability and affordability. It is also capable of addressing virtually all contaminants. With output of approximately 350 gallons of pure water daily, each unit provides a community-scale solution that meets the potable water needs of approximately 100 people.

    Full article is available at the link above. Another interesting article, this time from WPI Transformations by Eileen McCluskey:

    Access, or lack thereof, to good, clean water is reaching global crisis proportions. Each month, 200,000 people in developing nations die from water-borne diseases, many of which are preventable. Through their different approaches, George Oliver ’82 and Dean Kamen ’73 share the same sense of urgency to solve this worldwide problem.

    They come to the issue from different backgrounds, yet Dean Kamen and George Oliver are working toward the same goal. Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development Corporation, takes the one-on-one approach. His solution to the water scarcity problem comes in the form of a 225-pound purification system, which, through innovations closely guarded by DEKA, can be operated and maintained by anyone. Though it is still under wraps as DEKA finalizes its entry to market, this black box takes vapor compression distillation technology, like that developed for submarines, to a small scale with greatly improved efficiency over traditional distillation.

    "This technology can enable financial and social change in the developing world," says Kamen, who holds an impressive track record for inventing products that take off—some literally.

    The key part for me? Technology for clean water that can be "operated and maintained by anyone" -- the way it should be.

  7. Hat-tip to Meteor Blades. Regarding ocean oxygen depletion, see this Wikipedia page on hypoxia for more information. Other sources of information here and here.
  8. OK, stop laughing...I know that in the environment that spawned the massively disastrous George W. Bush Administration and create a legacy of insane waste, out-of-sight corruption and complete abdication of accountability and ethics that the imploding Republican party fostered, any discussion of "personal responsibility" is at best hilarious, but still..."is we learning" anything? We still have to think of the children...oh, and Poland. We mustn't forget Poland...
No votes yet


The reason we humans look for a quick technological fix that we can buy (hybrids, water systems, solar panels) is that behavioral changes otherwise required are so damned hard. In fact, in terms of change management, human behavior change is the hardest to achieve.

Yet, we could do so much if we just:

  1. Turned out lights when we aren't using them
  2. Air dried our clothes instead of running the clothes dryer all the time and especially on warm sunny days
  3. Combined trips -- so that we do pharmacy, shopping, post office and garden drop off all in one... instead of 4 separate trips
  4. Car pooled
  5. Wore an extra layer and turned the thermostat down
  6. Drove slower

But of course none of these is sexy or quick -- much more fun to pony up and buy a new hybrid car.

It was a report on California water systems--it may have been Santa Monica, I don't rightly remember. Anyway, they are implementing a waste recycling system. While the idea of drinking your poo (metaphorically speaking, no insult intended) makes me squeamish, I sat back and listened. They first have a process filtering out particle waste. Then the waste is irradiated. Lastly--and this was quite interesting to me--it is returned to the ground and makes its way into the water system in the same way that ground water fills my well, or that water flows into rivers and from their is damned etc. In other words it uses natural processes of purification and filtration as a last step before it joins the water system and the general filtration plant. Sounds to me like intelligent recycling.

I live in the country with my (our) own well and septic system. Who knows what animal is doing what where. Then there is our dog who licks out Chris' tea cup, over my protests but they win--two against one. In answer to GH I am very proper about showers and sinks. I found an interesting post on Scholars and Rogues website, The Weekly Carboholic by Brian Anglis. Here goes with an excerpt:

Germany has made a decision to abandon nuclear energy. No nation has to use nuclear energy for their electricity needs - there are abundant alternatives, and Germany has a plethora of alternatives. Unfortunately, according to the Washington Post, Germany is finding that their anti-nuclear, green impulse has had an unintended consequence - they’re transitioning away from nearly carbon-free nuclear energy and back to the dirtiest energy source there is - coal.

This is a huge problem because the EU has demanded that Germany cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, and yet Germany is also phasing out nuclear energy, a source that provides a quarter of Germany’s energy needs. According to the Washington Post article, German environmentalists are torqued off over the fact that Germany is building even more coal plants to meet the nation’s energy needs. Instead, environmentalists desire even more solar, wind, biomass, and hydroelectric energy in place of Germany’s growing dependence on coal. But the sun doesn’t shine all the time, the wind doesn’t blow all the time, biomass is hard to scale appropriately, and there are only so many rivers that can dammed. Every energy source has it’s environmental problems - flooded terrain for hydroelectric, strip mines for coal, radioactive waste for nuclear - but too many environmentalists want a perfect solution. There isn’t one. There is no way to escape the law of unintended consequences, and abandoning nuclear energy has created an ugly tradeoff for Germany’s environmentalist community.


with very interesting implications.

As for some of the other ways to achieve responsible behavior, educating people to be aware of their consumption -- even the rich and affluent (heh..."effluent"?) -- and to think instead of float through life merely existing will be difficult, particularly when one looks at the extreme right's push to dumb down the populace: can't have thinking people, after all, 'cuz they'll be so much more difficult to manipulate.

consideration, and -- of course -- the concept of personal responsibility vs. personal gratification, in which the definition of personal gratification translates out to mean "the right to be lazy" for most folks in this regard.

Two things wrong with the notion of PV system "mandates": cost, technology. Right now systems are in an "advanced" primitive stage, with announcements of new tech and products nearly once a month. The better alternative in the near term is for vendors to lease space from homeowners/businesses and split the benefits.

work to the benefit of all, helping to encourage the use and spread of the technology while ensuring that it is responsibly purposed.

Thanks, rba!

The changes we need are cultural. The technologies - means and methods - have been around and available for centuries. ("Wetlands" are nature's way of filtering and cleaning water).

So, some degree of technological assistance is necessary -- it's impractical to simply move everyone to where the water is, and it's impractical to move more water to where everyone else is.

But yes, cultural changes are a key element of all the major issues that humanity has brought upon itself. Without changes to cultures that encourage waste and abuse of resources, everything eventually just begins to like "good intentions" without any actual impact.

As the climate changes and more areas find wetlands disappearing while others suddenly ~become~ wetlands, conservation and an appreciation of natural systems will be even more critical. It's still likely that technological methods to address or help incorporate human lifestyle will be needed.

I can see rationing my trips to town--in fact I do--but when it comes to "number one" and "number two" that's a little rough. So we better get some good solutions. The Chinese and their "night soil" have been around along time but I guess I hope it doesn't come to that, 'cause in that circumstance lots of diseases can spread unchecked.



There's a lot of options that can be improved upon, many of which can actually lead to much healthier soil.

I'm hoping to do a piece on that stuff soon.

Is open for tours, just make a reservation. It was stunning just how much water is wasted in this desert environment. Our guide explained that they are in the process of expanding their gray water capability but that they're a very long way from the ideal--where it's separated at the point of usage instead of at the plant.

new and renovated buildings -- homes and businesses, alike -- where some degree of greywater pre-filtering and re-use took place, that'd be a heckuva starting point. It would reduce the potential draw on the recycling plant, and quite likely the overall demand for fresh water.

If you have any more info (or contact stuff / data from the tours) please let me know.

Hyperion Treatment Plant Tour Request Form
Form for requesting by FAX a tour of the Hyperion Treatment Plant. Before downloading or faxing this form, it is recommended that the tour web page is visited for important information about the tour.

Tour web page is at http://www.lacity.org/san/htp-tours.htm

Basic Tour Information

* Tours are typically scheduled each Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.
* Additional dates and times may be accommodated by special request.
* Most tours take between 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
* For your safety, hard hats must be worn and will be provided by the Plant for use on the tour.
* Please wear comfortable (not loose-fitting) clothing.
* Substantial closed in walking shoes are required.
* Requestor must arrange for transportation to and from the Plant.
* There is no fee for the tour.

It is a lot of walking. And yes, it's a teeny bit stinky. Don't wear long flowing clothing like long skirts, scarves, robes or pants that drag on the ground.

I appreciate the added info. :)